Editor’s Note: There is more to the stigma of psychiatric medication than one may think: There are the stigmas of going to therapy, of being diagnosed with a mental disorder, and of being prescribed medication for said disorder. However, there is also the stigma geared towards physically taking psychiatric medication, and that is much more taboo than people realize. These societal perceptions – or stigmas – add an extra layer of uncertainty for life’s big decisions, such as dating and career-planning. Below is a piece from a teen who must reconcile her desire to be a therapist and how society views those who take medication as not being stable enough to join the workforce.
There is a Russian saleswoman–middle-aged, blonde, and blue-eyed–at the pharmacy where I pick up my medication each month. Psychiatric medication. It’s a difficult trip for me, even after all this time. I force the thoughts down as I enter the pharmacy and pretend I am just picking up another bottle of moisturizer or shampoo as I sign electronically and stuff the bag deep into my pocketbook. I try to block out what this errand really means to me and complete it as swiftly as possible.
A Medicated Therapist?!
Recently, in her thick accent, the saleswoman asked about my place of work. When I confessed to still be searching but contemplating going to school, she was adamant that it was a requirement for my future.
“My parents want me to go,” I told her. And then I blurted it out–something that I haven’t told many others: “I want to be a therapist.”
Her eyes turned serious. “You will be a good one, you must do it. I see it in you, in your eyes. You listen to people. You are nice. You care.”
I could have cried right there in the aisles filled with fruity shampoos and Tylenol as I stood beside her counter, as if she was the therapist and I the client. Her words reached into me, breaking me in a place that I wouldn’t show, and I felt the confusing mix of pain, wonder, and relief of the support and belief in me from a stranger who didn’t know my life, yet saw in me the potential to be for others what I so desperately needed.
But a therapist on medication? Struggling as I am to survive my present and longstanding pain, the thought of being strong for others in a clinical setting seems too ironic.
“These therapists are all crazy,” my relative laughed. “They probably all have issues themselves and that’s how they know these things!”
I gritted my teeth. And that’s how they know how to help people.
Confronting The Medication Stigma
Then again, maybe it’s not so strange. If I’ve “been there, done that,” though no longer struggling as much as I had been not too long ago, I can understand my clients in a way that no college professor can bring across to one personally uninitiated with the struggle. Because if you’ve been there, done it, and known it, then you will know your clients too. And if you haven’t, thank G-d, it’s a different struggle to mix compassion with learned knowledge and understand a patient’s life from the perspective of being in their head, as opposed to simply trying to identify with the pain.
I have worked hard to accept that I will need to be taking this medication for life and that I must be open to trying other medications to aid me as well. It’s a work in progress. It is so hard. I don’t want to be dependent on medication. Am I not “me” if my mind is controlled by medication? What about a shidduch? What about having kids on medication? My medication is forbidden during pregnancy. Can I even be a mother or wife as I am without it?
Understanding The “Me” in Medication
I have learned that I am as much “me” as I ever was, only better. The real me is able to be viewed upon taking medication, simply (or more accurately, not so simply) taking the piece which Hashem deliberately left out of my system for reasons unknown, yet created for me to insert into that void to complete myself and function as He intended me to.
Think of it as if you are short on a physical component like a diabetic is with insulin and supplements. There is no judgment warranted–did you ask for this? With mental illness, there is usually some chemical or function that is simply underserved in your brain. There is no moral flaw in you for being the way you are. You did not do something wrong. For some reason, Hashem created you incomplete in that part of yourself–and has also created a way for you to receive it. Once it is put in place (which is much easier said than done), you will feel more whole and complete, no matter how long it takes. This goes beyond psychotropic drugs, and includes therapy as well, whether it be talk therapy, art therapy, music therapy, or whatever fits your niche.
A religious medical doctor I was seeing once told me to think of psychiatric medication like “a gift that Hashem has left on your pillow especially for you” when I was fighting against beginning medication again. He explained to me that Hashem has created the exact medications I need to help me, has sent me the solution and that there should be no shame in it. It took years, but I have finally come to a certain point of acceptance.
The True Role of Medication
It has been explained to me repeatedly that medication is just something to jumpstart recovery, allowing one to make headway in therapy and learn to cope. Even once it is working, it is the smallest factor in your healing; the real work takes place in therapy and life beyond. But you are a person beyond therapy and medication. You are not only a patient, but you are you. Painful as it may be.
Going on medication is not a simple decision. It hurts to be criticized or condemned by others. Do you think we are unaware or not terrified of the side effects? Read down the list of side effects on one medication and you’ll begin to realize what kind of a choice we have to make. The fears, the doubts, the hesitations. The pros and cons.
It’s nerve-wracking. It’s not a decision taken lightly. And sometimes it’s just knowing, or being told by professionals and those who care, that you must at least try, because you may have a life, but that doesn’t mean that you’re living.
Do not mischaracterize medication as a “cop-out” or “way out.” It’s about taking more responsibility than you had before the medication because medication alone may not do that much. It’s a team effort: therapist and patient, skills training and practice–it doesn’t stop.
Enabling Me To Be Me
I have difficulty accepting that I will be on medication for life. I try to accept it, to not think of it, and to focus on the work that I’m doing in and out of therapy. Even if the medication will be terminated one day, it will not be able to take away what I have achieved while on it and it certainly does not mean that I cannot be a therapist or any sort of profession for that matter.
I want to be me–
The best me that I can be.
And when you meet me, you will see me–with all of the effort and persistence that goes into making me who I am, not the substances that I swallow that enable me to be me.
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